Information chief refuses to take action in document shredding row

Information
Commissioner Richard Thomas has refused to investigate claims that
Whitehall has shredded masses of files to avoid opening them up to
journalists under the Freedom of Information Act.

He said there
is no evidence that files have been deliberately destroyed and he will
only consider an investigation if evidence can be produced.

His
stance has dismayed the Tories, who allege that departments took
advantage of the five-year gap between the passing of the act in 2000
and this year, when it fully came into force, to destroy files.

Tory
shadow cabinet office minister Julian Lewis has accused the Information
Commissioner of putting the “cart before the horse in a wholly
unacceptable way”.

“You seem to want the case to be proven that
an abuse has occurred before you are willing to investigate whether an
abuse has occurred,” he accused Thomas in a letter.

The Tories
called on Thomas to intervene when they claimed in December that they
had discovered a “mass shredding of government files”.

In his
reply Thomas said: “Cabinet Office guidance does make clear the
importance of retaining a department’s ‘corporate record’ and spells
out that all emails are subject to departmental records management
policies and procedures.

It states clearly that an email which
contributes to full understanding of a decision, results in action
being taken or forms a significant part of the ‘story’, must be kept.

“I
do not have criticism to make of this guidance, but I would be most
concerned if it were interpreted by anyone as authorising the
destruction of material in order to prevent disclosure under the new
legislation.

“No one has so far produced any evidence that files
are being deliberately destroyed to prevent disclosure under the
Freedom of Information Act. My office will consider any such evidence
and decide whether to investigate the matter. Where a valid request has
been made it will be a criminal offence to destroy a disclosable record
with the intention of preventing disclosure.”

Lewis has written
back insisting: “My inquiries have elicited the fact that, in several
important departments, there has been a massive increase in the volume
of files destroyed during the period from 2000 when the Freedom of
Information Act was passed, to 2005 when it came fully into force.”

He
told Thomas that should be enough to trigger an investigation and
claimed: “The Government’s blatant and wholesale destruction of records
did not occur after a ‘valid request’ had been made. If a government is
bent on such behaviour, it will shred the evidence wholesale in advance
of any request being made. It is easy enough to anticipate requests and
pre-emptively destroy sensitive material.”

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